Filed Under:

Grass Mattress Was A Stone Age Bed And Breakfast

Play associated audio

In archaeology, you get special bragging rights when you can lay claim to the oldest specimen of something.

Scientists in South Africa may now qualify for what they say is the world's oldest bed. Well, not a bed exactly, but more like a mattress made of grass.

What Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of Witswatersrand, found were mats of grass and sedge piled half an inch thick on the floor of a cavelike rock shelter in South Africa.

The oldest bedding is 77,000 years old. That's about 40,000 years older than the previous record for bedding. It was found in a place called Sibudu.

"We know that these were used by people very deliberately, because in amongst them were stone tools and little fragments of burnt bone," says Wadley. "People were having breakfast in bed."

A Stone Age bed and breakfast sounds rather cushy, but if you've ever lived in a cave, you know how hard it is to keep clean: Insects, for example, are a real problem.

So what these people did was lay leaves from a certain tree, the river wild quince, on top of the grass bedding. "Those leaves contain chemicals that repel insects," Wadley explains. Indigenous groups in Africa, in fact, still use these leaves for that purpose.

Mosquitoes would've been a problem at the rock shelter, since it's near a river. Birds roosted there, and they're full of lice. Even with the leafy insecticide, the place eventually would have gotten pretty infested. Just ask archaeologist (and occasional cave-dweller) John Shea from Stony Brook University.

"Caves are just disgusting places," he says. "We shelter up in caves when we do field work in Eritrea and Israel and Africa. These are places where you get bugs, you get rot."

What hunter-gatherers normally did when their crib got too disgusting was just abandon it and find another. But not at Sidubu. When Wadley and her team dug down into the dirt, they found layers and layers of bedding — burned bedding. Apparently, when the bedding got nasty, the residents burned it, then made more and stayed on, apparently for thousands of years at a time, in fact.

Shea says bedding this old doesn't surprise him. You don't need a Ph.D. to realize that sleeping on rock or dirt sucks the heat out of your body. "The interesting thing they've got," he says, "is they've got evidence for that medicinal plant use, that insecticide use. What that shows you is that these people are smart."

Smart enough to figure out which plants will give you a better night's sleep.

The research appears in the journal Science.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

Exhibit Shows Dolores Huerta's Life As Part Of The 'Backbone' Of America

The exhibit about the United Farm Workers activist is the first in the National Portrait Gallery's "One Life" series to be devoted to a Latina.

NPR

Do Try This At Home: 3 Korean Banchan (Side Dishes) In One Pot

If you've ever eaten at a Korean restaurant, you're used to the endless side dishes that come out with the meal. They're called banchan, and they're remarkably simple to make for yourself.
WAMU 88.5

Cutting Local Taxes In The District

The D.C. Council has taken steps to accelerate tax cuts for all income earners. They're part of a broader overhaul of the city's tax levels, but some council members argued there wasn't enough time for a rigorous debate about the new schedule. We explore the debate over cutting taxes for D.C. residents and how it affects the city's ability to pay for critical local services.

NPR

A Hacker Is Hacked: Controversial Italian Cyber Espionage Company Is Targeted

Hacking Team's spyware has been detected in many countries with repressive regimes. The company has never revealed its client list, but a hack has made thousands of documents public.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.